Three-quarters of executives at traditional retailers say they’ve increased their investment in online channels as they face challenges in pricing, delivery speed and cost, and marketing and brand recognition from online players, according to a report from Applied Predictive Technologies’ and The Economist magazine’s Economist Intelligence Unit.
Nearly half (47%) say they face "significant" competition from pure-play e-commerce rivals and another 37% say they face "moderate" competition, according to the report. Amazon is viewed as the dominant source of the competition by 42% of respondents, followed by eBay with 14%.
Traditional retailers are responding with initiatives that have entailed shuttering stores (60%), cutting prices (44%), boosting assortment (68%) and other measures, according to the report. Fewer than a third have been able to recoup more than 25% of their lost in-store sales through their online channels. Another 12% plan to cut prices in the future, the research found.
The report demonstrates the pickle retailers are in as they attempt to take on challenges presented by e-commerce — and pricing appears to be a significant problem. Among retailers that have closed stores but successfully recouped more than 25% of revenue, nearly three quarters (72%) have reduced prices.
It's easy to guess why. For the two decades of Amazon’s entry into retail, disruption from e-commerce has rested largely on consumers’ ability to easily compare prices, and that’s only been fueled by their ability to do so on their phones, including while they’re in stores. But the logistics of e-commerce are also more complex and expensive than traditional retail distribution, so the turn to online sales provides a double-whammy hit to margins.
"E-commerce has taken its toll on traditional retailers and, as our survey reveals, six out of ten respondents have closed stores in the past three years as a result of online-only competition," Pete Swabey, editorial director of EMEA Thought Leadership at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a statement. "But the survey also reveals the strategies that retailers are adopting to fight back. These include increasing their product selection, reducing prices, and expanding loyalty programs to better understand customer behavior. They are also emphasizing the unique strengths of the in-store shopping experience, in particular through an increased focus on staff training."
Online sales account for less than 10% of all retail sales, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. To drive traffic to stores and avoid some of the higher costs of online orders, legacy retailers are making changes to stores, revamping merchandising, boosting their in-store experience and training employees.
The most common in-store response to online competition is employee training — with retailers aiming to make employees more knowledgeable (70%) and helpful (58%). The endless aisle provided by many e-commerce players is leading most retailers (68%) to expand their product selection, and the data advantage enjoyed by online retailers have led more than half (54%) to boost or introduce loyalty programs, with another quarter (24%) planning new loyalty programs in the future.
The expense and complexity of responding to online competition requires thoughtful strategies, and in particular, shuttering stores should not be done lightly, according to APT Senior Vice President Jonathan Marek.
"In such a competitive environment, it is critical that brick-and-mortar retailers not just adapt, but adapt smartly," Marek said. "With so many initiatives to try across so many different areas of the business, those that can most quickly and effectively implement winning ideas will be the victors in the age of e-commerce. While there are many methods retailers can use to inform decision-making, in particular, findings show that among the respondents that leverage scientific testing to evaluate new ideas, 60% have either not closed stores as a result of online competition, or have recouped more than half of sales lost from store closures."